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A Federal Ghostland: Where Have All the Managers Gone?

Pay freezes, budget cuts, furloughs – it shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone, but after years of record low employee satisfaction, government’s senior executives are leaving the civil service at a rapidly increasing rate.

According to a new report from the Senior Executive Service and George Washington University, this gap is creating the possibility for a significant shortage of qualified top managers. The retirement tsunami is here, and it seems to be here to stay. So what can be done?

Tom Fox, Vice President for Leadership and Innovation at the Partnership for Public Service, told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that the first step to dealing with a retirement tsunami is to re-think your strategic plan.

Graduate students at the George Washington University found using the Office of Personnel Management data that there was a 36 percent increase in departures from senior executive service employees since 2009.

“I can remember working on some of these issues in the late 90s,” Fox said. “I was at the Government Accountability Office and we had done some SES retirement projections. Now we are seeing what we had predicted come true, folks that had held on a little longer than previously planned are now retiring because they are ready for a new chapter in their lives.”

The report states that in fiscal 2009, senior executives left government a much lower rate than the rest of the workforce; 7 percent of SESers separated that year, compared to 10 percent of employees government-wide. That gap has shrunk each of the last four years, and in fiscal 2013 the separation rates were even.

“Being an executive in government is an especially difficult job. It is a job that is fraught with more opportunities for criticisms than it is for praise,” said Fox. “As you see your earning potential dwindle over time, people are drawling the conclusion that it is time to go.”

The exodus is leaving a big gap in skills for the remaining government employees. But Fox said the SES departures could actually breath new life into government agencies.

“For tall he loss of the great experience and the skill set that you have with some of the executives that are leaving, their retirements are an opportunity for the agency to remold an organization in a new direction,” Fox said. “The key is for senior leaders in particular to be intentional about the new mold.”

Fox advised that agencies should not just replace the senior execs — instead they should first figure out what the real needs of the 21st century government are, and fill the positions accordingly.

“Agencies need to think about the executive core calculations that we can use to attract senior executives,” Fox said. “Do they need a change agent, someone who can inspire morale, an innovative thinker? That’s where agencies can really excel, if they think outside the box.”

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Mark Hammer

Maybe step one is to dramatically shrink the budget envelope for use of consultants.

Three years ago, I was joking with my co-workers that Hosni Mubarak would be coming back…as a consultant, because that’s where the real money is. But it’s not that far off. Even where laws and policies prohibit people from “double-dipping” (working in the federal PS and collecting pension at the same time), many nominally-retired execs sidestep the prohibition by working for consulting firms, such that the cheque goes to the consulting firm, and not them personally. Alternatively, they may get short-term contract jobs in the very organization they just retired from.

Remember, just because someone is not an FTE in your agency anymore, and is drawing a pension cheque, does not mean they have withdrawn from the labor force.